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Boy Scout camp employees fired after trying to rescue injured bald eagle

The Washington Post The Washington Post 12/07/2016 Mary Hui
This injured eagle eventually was euthanized by a wildlife veterinarian. © Eliana Bookbinder This injured eagle eventually was euthanized by a wildlife veterinarian.

It was nearing 6 p.m. one Sunday last month when Jeremy and Eliana Bookbinder heard about an injured hawk on a hiking trail not far from the camp where they were working.

The 20-year-old twins from Prince George’s were at Camp Marriott, a Boy Scout camp in the Goshen Scout Reservation, about 20 miles from Lexington, Va.

Some hikers had told a camp staff member that they had found an injured hawk, and the information had been passed along to the twins.

It was their day off, but Eliana Bookbinder, as the camp’s ecology area director, decided to go check it out. So she put on her uniform and asked her boss if she could call the Wildlife Center of Virginia once she found the bird. She said he told her he would have to check with the Goshen superintendent.

So she headed out on her search — the first in a series of steps that would end with both Bookbinders being fired from their jobs at the camp.

Jeremy and Eliana Bookbinder at Camp Marriott, a Boy Scout camp in the Goshen Scout Reservation, about 20 miles from Lexington, Virginia. © Eliana Bookbinder Jeremy and Eliana Bookbinder at Camp Marriott, a Boy Scout camp in the Goshen Scout Reservation, about 20 miles from Lexington, Virginia.

It took a while, but she finally found the spot — a tree marked with white medical gauze. About 20 feet away was an injured bird sitting on the ground.

“I could tell that it was far too large to be a hawk,” Bookbinder said. She used to work at a nature center and quickly recognized that the bird was a bald eagle.

It was “very, very still and quiet,” she said, and it was “covered in flies.”

Bookbinder called her boss, Matt Anderson, and told him about the eagle. She also texted him a photo of the bird. But from the other end of the line came an order: She was not to call the wildlife rehabilitation center, nor was she to transport it to a wildlife veterinarian.

“I pointed out that this was a massive violation of the Scout law,” Bookbinder said. “Part of the Scout law is to be thoughtful and to be kind, and this was neither.

“I have never been so angry that I cried,” she said. “At that point I just thought okay, I’m just going to do it anyway.”

Meanwhile, she had been in touch with her brother, who was back at the camp. She told him to gather materials — towels, a spray bottle, a large Tupperware container — so that they could capture the eagle and take it a rehabilitation center.

She also called the emergency after-hours phone number of the Wildlife Center of Virginia. She was told that if she could safely capture the eagle, she should do so and bring it to the center, located about 45 miles away.

Soon, her brother arrived on the trail and the two worked together to capture the bird. As they slowly inched toward the eagle, it was clear it couldn’t flap its wings or make alarm calls. She grabbed it from behind, wrapped it in towels, and carefully placed it into the large plastic tub.

“It was really scarily easy,” she said.

They carried the tub to the car, and Bookbinder sat in the back with it as her brother drove.

Then their boss called. According to Eliana Bookbinder, Anderson told them that because they had captured the eagle after being told not to do so, they might be fired.

Bookbinder told him it was worth it.

“I could not in good conscience leave this eagle out here and have it get eaten by God knows what,” she said.

At the Wildlife Center, the two handed over the eagle and filled out paperwork, and staff at the center started assessing the bird’s condition.

It was about 11 p.m. by the time the Bookbinders arrived back at camp. They were called to Anderson’s office. According to Eliana Bookbinder, Anderson berated them for having done a “terrible” thing and said that their actions had “endangered the reputation of the Boy Scouts.”

He did not specify how, she said, although they were told that their actions had potentially exposed the Boy Scouts to a $200,000 fine.

The next morning, the Wildlife Center informed the Bookbinders that unfortunately the eagle had to be euthanized.

“It was too banged up to be surgically fixable or releasable,” Eliana Bookbinder said.

At around 10:30 a.m., the siblings were called to a meeting with Anderson, along with the camp superintendent, Mike Jolly, and the director of Goshen Scout Reservation, Philip Barbash.

According to Eliana Bookbinder, Jolly told them that they had broken federal law — though he didn’t specify which one — and that the game warden had wanted to arrest them for rescuing the eagle.

Then, the Bookbinders said, Anderson fired them for disobeying orders.

Contacted by The Washington Post for comment, Barbash deferred to his chief spokesman, Aaron Chusid.

“We have no comment at this time as it is our policy not to comment on employment matters,” Chusid wrote in an email. “At Goshen Scout Reservation, our first priority is always to promote the health and safety of our campers while adhering to Scouting’s values as stated in the Scout Oath and Law.”

Anderson and Jolly did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

It’s unclear what law the two might have broken. For 40 years, bald eagles were protected under the Virginia Endangered Species Act, but they were removed from the list in 2013 because of the recovery the species had made.

“I don’t know which law [Jolly] was referring to,” said Al Bourgeois, the district biologist for Rockbridge County at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “However, he may not know that bald eagles are de-listed [from the endangered species list]. When they were endangered, it was a serious thing to pick up an eagle or other protected bird, and people could be fined for having them in their possession. . . . The Boy Scout camp in the past has called [the department] to ask how we wanted to proceed with injured animals if they found one at the camp.”

Bourgeois said Jolly contacted him about the injured bird — specifically, asking Bourgeois to identify the animal. Bourgeois also said Jolly had contacted the game warden to ask what should be done about the injured eagle.

“It sounded like everybody did what everybody should have done,” Bourgeois said.

Asked why he thought Jolly, as per the twins’ account, supposedly gave the order to not contact the center or to bring the eagle there, Bourgeois said that he could not speculate and was not in a position to comment on Boy Scout policies.

Bourgeois did note, however, that birds do occasionally crash-land. Jeff Cooper, a biologist at the department who specializes in bald eagles, agreed, noting that it is common for fledgling eagles to crash-land and injure themselves.

“My impression is that that’s what happened,” Cooper said.

Eliana Bookbinder, a junior at Earlham College in Indiana, contends that not taking the injured eagle to the Wildlife Center would have violated multiple sections of the Scout Oath and Law, including the injunction, under the Boy Scout Outdoor Code, to be “considerate in the outdoors” and “conservation minded.”

Reflecting on the incident, both she and her brother, a sophomore at the College of Southern Maryland, said the episode has showed them the importance of sticking to one’s moral and ethical convictions — even if it means getting fired.

“I know the sort of moral fiber I have now,” she said.

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